As the occasional snowflake fluttered through the air and landed on a makeshift football field, Jahvid Best once again stood on the sideline, watching others play the game he loves.
This day, it was his choice. The Detroit Lions running back, who hasn't played a game since October 2011 because of multiple concussions, was one of 17 NFL players who visited St. Vincent's Villa in Timonium on Sunday morning. As Minnesota Vikings running back Adrian Peterson and Tennessee Titans wide receiver Kenny Britt captained teams of children, Best laughed, cheered and tried to stay warm.
Best and his peers are in Baltimore for Monday night's Ed Block Courage Awards Foundation banquet at Martin's West. The foundation, which benefits abused, neglected and at-risk kids like the ones who got to play football and shoot hoops with their heroes Sunday, will honor 32 players, one from each team, at its 35th annual banquet.
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Villa Maria at St. Vincents School, 2600 Pot Spring Road, Lutherville-Timonium, MD 21093, USA
Each player was selected by his teammates for overcoming some kind of adversity — usually a major injury like the torn Achilles that linebacker Terrell Suggs, the Ravens' honoree, returned from — during the 2012 season. Best is the only one who did not play in a game, though.
"It's a huge honor," he said. "All the hard work I put in then to have the letdown that I experienced. Having my teammates appreciate all of the hard work that I have put in, it means a lot to me."
But Best doesn't know if all the hard work will result in a return to the NFL.
One of the more prominent faces of the NFL's concussions crisis, Best suffered a serious concussion during his senior season at California and two more during the 2011 season. After attempting to make a comeback in 2012, he was placed on injured reserve in November.
The elusive dual-threat back has 945 rushing yards, 774 receiving yards and nine total touchdowns in 22 career games over three seasons.
Best says he feels good and is symptom-free, but he has not been cleared by neurologists to return to full-contact practices.
"It's tough. I don't know what the future is going to hold for me," the 2010 first-round pick said. "It's been about a year and a half now, but I'm still working out like I'm playing next week. … I am never giving up hope. I'm staying ready so if the opportunity does present itself, I'll be ready."
One of the 24-year-old's teammates in Detroit, veteran wide receiver Nate Burleson, said last month that if he were Best, he would "shut it down" to avoid further damage to his brain. Those comments contradicted a sometimes-stubborn football culture that says one should always play through pain.
Best reiterated that he plans to continue his comeback attempt because he loves the game too much. And even if Best never makes it back, his courage to try has not gone unrecognized among his NFL peers.
"You give your whole respect to a guy like that," said Britt, his voice hoarse after a couple hours of playing outside. "This guy didn't play last year, but he keeps fighting to come back."
Best occasionally allows himself to fantasize about what it will be like to run out of the tunnel again wearing a silver and blue Lions helmet, but on Sunday, he was not thinking about that. His thoughts were on all the children, ages 5 to 14, who warmly greeted him at St. Vincent's Villa.
The kids performed musical and dance routines, got autographs, and the most boisterous of the bunch playfully talked trash, trying to entice NFL behemoths twice their size to go play outside.
"The kids that are here have gone through a lot of adversity. To see that their heroes have also gone through adversity and make it, it just makes a tremendous difference for them," St. Vincent's Villa administrator Ezra Buchdahl said. "It's a great day and it's really something that kids remember for the rest of their lives. We have kids that come back today as adults, and they talk about Ed Block Day."
After watching the kids chase Peterson and Britt on that random patch of grass at St. Vincent's Villa, Best — now warming up inside — said they weren't the only ones who found inspiration Sunday.
"Seeing what they go through and how they overcome adversity and tough times, it motivates you and puts your life in perspective and makes you appreciate the things you do have," Best said. "The things they went through, and they still have smiles and hopes for the future. There's something you can really take from that."